'Deepwater Horizon': How the Sound Team Put Viewers on the Oil Rig

Deepwater Horizon - Screen shot 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Lionsgate

The sound team on Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg’s account of the 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which opens Friday, focused on realism starting with extensive research that even came down to examining the procedures involved on the rig that were featured in the story. 

“Our goal was always to involve the ear of the audience in the characters and how involved, difficult and engaging the mission of oil exploration can become,” says the film’s seven-time Oscar-nominated sound designer Wylie Stateman. “After all, the story of the Deepwater Horizon is not so much one of only destruction but of the many participants putting life, career and integrity on the line in pursuit of hard-to-reach sources of energy.”

The sound team, he says, also wanted to create “hold-your-breath tension and a feeling of documentary-like immersion,” which meant giving the viewer the sense that he or she is enveloped in the life of those in offshore oil exploration. “It’s technical, noisy, messy, yet highly coordinated work. Danger lurks everywhere — even with how the environment and machinery sound. All pressure sounds, the fire, the twisting metal and explosions, were developed post-shooting. The alarms, radio and PA announcements were interpreted to enhance confusion and disorientation."

Lionsgate and Participant Media spent $110 million to make the movie, which will additionally get a release in Dolby Cinema, which combines Dolby’s immersive sound format Atmos and its high dynamic range image format Dolby Vision (HDR means that the projector can display a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks). The film also will be available with the Atmos sound in all supported auditoriums.

Eric Hoehn, rerecording mixer of the Atmos versions, explains: “Deepwater Horizon is such a vertical structure, so in terms of Atmos … it was such a playground for sound. But we didn’t want to take it into an abstract direction — we wanted to keep it real.” Hoehn says he focused on putting sound above and below the characters to give viewers that sense of being on the different levels of the rig.

To draw people in during the opening minutes of the movie, Deepwater Horizon begins with a voiceover by real-life rig technician Mike Williams — portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the film — who gives a description of what actually happened during the incident. And then from that mono voiceover the sound "opens up" to the sound supporting the imagery that puts the viewer underwater, Hoehn explains. "Our goal was to create infinite vanishing points above you and below you. [Coupled with an] ambient, textured score [from composer Steve Jablonsky], the opening sets up the monster downstairs but also it gets you acclimated to the experience.

“From there, it was about playing with each of the elements and giving them their moments," he adds.

For the imagery, the film’s senior colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld of Deluxe postproduction house Company 3 (he’s also chief creative officer at Deluxe) similarly focused on realism and putting the viewer in the experience.

“We tried to be more realistic and we [gave it a] sense of style inside the rig with color,” he says. “At the end, with the explosions, that was effects work. That was the trickiest, integrating [the effects] into the piece so it looked real.”

Sonnenfeld adds that for the Dolby Vision version, "There’s more range between black and white, which is perfect for a movie like this with the darkness and the [bright] explosions. It was about keeping the range as wide as possible without taking someone out of the story."

Sonnenfeld says he worked closely with cinematographer Enrique Chediak, as well as Berg, on the grade.

The sound team also included rerecording mixers Mike Prestwood Smith and Dror Mohar, sound editors Harry Cohen and Kris Fenske, co-supervising sound editor Renee Tondelli, dialogue supervisor Branden Spencer and music editor Ryan Rubin.